By Valentina Za
MILAN (Reuters) – The German captain of a migrant rescue ship who defied an Italian government ban to dock at the island port of Lampedusa expressed regret on Sunday for any alarm caused when her ship trapped a police boat against the quay.
Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League party, called the incident “a criminal act, an act of war”.
Carola Rackete, who was arrested on Saturday after spending two weeks in international waters with dozens of rescued African migrants, immediately switched off her engines when she realised the Sea-Watch 3 might have got too close to the patrol boat, her lawyer Alessandro Gamberini told Reuters by telephone.
“She is very sorry to have a created a situation of danger and fright among tax police officials. It was a difficult manoeuvre but she always felt she was conducting it in a safe way … she had been approaching extremely slowly.”
Government vessels had tried to prevent the Sea-Watch 3 docking and one ended up squeezed between the ship and the quay before freeing itself, videos on social media showed.
Rackete, 31, was arrested for resisting a military ship after being denied permission to dock under laws introduced by Salvini to deter non-government rescue ships. She is being investigated on suspicion of aiding people-smugglers.
But German President Frank Walter Steinmeier urged Italy not to treat her as a criminal.
“Anyone who saves people’s lives cannot be considered a criminal,” he told the German public broadcaster ZDF in an interview to be aired on Sunday evening.
“I COULD BE DEADNOW”
Rackete’s boat was impounded and Sea-Watch could be fined up to 50,000 euros (£44,780).
Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the League’s coalition partner, the 5-Star Movement, said he would propose that boats seized for entering Italian waters illegally should became state property.
The interior ministry said the 41 migrants who disembarked the Sea-Watch 3, run by the German charity Sea-Watch, were “fed and spent a quiet night … so it’s unclear why the NGO needed to dock without authorisation”.
But Sea-Watch spokeswoman Giorgia Linardi said Rackete had felt she could no longer keep the migrants on the ship as suicide threats were forcing its crew to keep a constant watch.
“I say ‘thank-you’ to Sea Watch,” said one of the migrants, 21-year-old Isaac. “Because if it wasn’t … (for) Sea-Watch, I’d be a dead body by now.”
Salvini says the European Union has left Italy alone to deal with the arrivals by sea, and the issue has also caused friction with Paris.
After French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner criticised Italy’s approach, Salvini told Sky TG24 television that France should open its ports to two NGO boats that were in the Mediterranean.
“Every country, I reckon, is free to decide who comes in and who doesn’t. Thousands of migrants are pushed back at the Italian border with France,” he said.
Salvini said the Lampedusa arrivals would be divided up between France, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland and Portugal.
“A magistrate has 48 hours to decide if the lady in charge of the ship that tried to squash four policemen like sardines deserves to remain in jail or not,” Salvini added.
“If she is released, we have an expulsion order ready.”
(Additional reporting by Antonio Denti; Editing by Alexander Smith and Kevin Liffey)